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Kanye West And adidas’ Split Was Years In The Making

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Kanye West and adidas had a very public breakup in October 2022. From the outside, the German sportswear brand's decision to sever ties with the Yeezy-frontman seemed like an informed, but reactionary one – West had been at the center of several controversies in the months leading to the split. An investigation led by Megan Twohey and recently published by the New York Times, however, found that issues existed since the partnership's earliest days.


"When the company ended the relationship last October, it appeared to be the culmination of weeks of Mr. West's inflammatory public remarks," writes Twohey. "Inside their partnership, the artist made antisemitic and sexually offensive comments, displayed erratic behavior, and issued ever escalating demands [over a decade]. Adidas's leaders, eager for the profits, time and again abided his misconduct."


From 2013 to 2022, Ye – the being formerly known as "Kanye West" – and the Three Stripes released over 250 pairs of adidas Yeezy footwear. Some of the partnership's most popular styles – Yeezy Boost 350 V2, Yeezy Slides, Yeezy Boost 700, Yeezy Foam Runners – restocked on a consistent basis, delivering on Ye's early promise of brining his products to everyone who wanted them (accessibility was a pain point of the artist's previous endorsement deal with Nike). The decision to frequently reissue product was also an economic one.


Yeezys become a $1 billion business by 2021. Five years earlier, Ye's adidas line had brought in net sales of $65 million.


The former-"Mr. West" was benefiting immensely from the success of his Yeezy business, too – not just adidas. His deal with the sportswear behemoth was unprecedented: as a non-athlete, he was receiving a 15% royalty on net sales, in addition to at least $10 million a year guaranteed. An assessment by Forbes in August 2019 found that adidas Yeezy had helped the then-42-year-old become a billionaire, out-valuing his music assets.


Behind-the-scenes, friction consistently arose between Ye and his German partner. In 2016, a new contract was drafted up by the Three Stripes. While meant to entice the artist, the document was also meant to better protect the brand. As reported by the Times, [e]xecutives were insisting on a clause that would allow Adidas to end the deal over a range of behaviors that could threaten its reputation."


As history tells it, Ye wasn't free of inflammatory public comments, concerning song lyrics, nor questionable conduct. Yet, this wasn't enough for the brand's top personnel to put action behind the deal's moral clause.


"We're not signing up to his statements; we're signing up to what he brings to the brand," said Kasper Rørsted, former-adidas CEO, in 2018. Rørsted stepped down from the position by the end of 2022, with the change seemingly fueled by poor performance across the non-Yeezy side of the business.


Two months after announcing Rørsted's departure, adidas terminated its contract with Ye. Soon thereafter, Harm Ohlmeyer, Chief Financial Officer, all-but-confirmed to Bloomberg that the brand would sell Yeezys without Kanye: "[W]e own all the [intellectual property], we own all the designs, we own all the versions and new colorways. It's our product. We do not own the Yeezy name."


Bjørn Gulden took over the helm after Rørsted and was tasked with handling the Yeezy situation: the brand was sitting on over $500 million worth of unsold inventory. The former-PUMA CEO has been vocal about his admiration for Ye, and ultimately made the decision to sell Yeezys again in May. The caveats would be that Ye would get royalties and part of the revenue would be donated to select "international organizations" dedicated to the fight against antisemitism, racism, and other isms the artist had been guilty of.


Restocks from both the Three Stripes and retail partners of all sizes were received by widespread criticism, but nonetheless sold out.


In early August, Gulden announced that the future of adidas did not include a rehashing of popular Yeezys, contrasting previous leadership's stance: "To take his designs and sell them off later, which we technically legally could do, is not part of our strategy…"


Was adidas Yeezy doomed from the start? Drawing swastikas on sketched footwear proposals is as concerning-of-a-sign as it gets, but the relationship could've gone a straighter route throughout the years. Rørsted's comments in 2018 summarized the Three Stripes' stance on Ye perfectly, and will have to figure out how to recapture some of the magic without him.


Some of the brand's big bold bets include a focus on heritage styles like the adidas Samba; high-profile collaborations with Bad Bunny and others; and sustainable products.



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